“Hugo-winner McDonald’s virtues have long been underappreciated by major North American publishers… McDonald’s fantastic Mars is vividly detailed and owes much to Bradbury’s Martian stories. ...entirely worthy of its rightly lauded predecessor [Desolation Road].” --Publishers Weekly
Read an excerpt from the book, here:
Here comes Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th. She is eight, and this is the manner of her coming.
First, you see the sand. It is red and of a particular grain type produced only by wind action. It smells electric; there is much iron in it. It draws lightning out of the occasional clouds; once or twice in a long year, rain. Where the lightning strikes, veins of slag-iron strike deep into the sand. This is rust-sand, strewn profligately about this contourless landscape. Red sand, rust-sand, red dust, a desert of iron studded with ugly stones. The wind never ceases out here on the plains of the high high north. It has teased the sand into steep-sided ridges, long meandering sifs, crescent moon barchans. This is a sinuous, sensual landscape, curves and seductions from the slip-sliding dunefaces to the curve of the close horizon.
A solitary hard erection confronts the soft northern desert of iron. Five metres high, a slim steel shaft, scabbed by the excoriating winds, scarred by summer lightning. It is a natural victim for summer lightning. On top of the shaft, three lights, red topmost, amber in the middle, on the bottom, green.
Signal lights. In the middle of a rust-desert.
Now you see the rail. Two perfectly parallel lines of Bethlehem Ares steel, rolled in the mills of New Merionedd, married together by pourstone sleepers, tied down by figure-of-eight tie-bolts: pinned, plated and bolted. Straight and absolute as a geometrical proposition. Get down. Hunker down—not too low, under this sun your cheek will stick to the hot rail and rip. Just enough to sight along them, gun-barrels aimed at the place where horizon and heat-dazzle meet and melt. Straight and absolute. You can go over the edge of the world and they’ll run straight and absolute for seven hundred kilometres. In the cabs of the big transcontinentals there are red buttons that the engineers must touch every twenty seconds or the brakes will automatically apply. It’s easy to fall asleep over the speed levers out here. It’s a hypnotic land. It draws your soul out through your staring eyes along the twin steel rails, to whatever dwells in the silver shimmer at the edge of the world. Occasional track-side tangles of sand-polished metal prove the dangers that lie in the long straight track.
But we drive ahead of ourselves here. We must stay a while at the signal light, and ask questions. Why signal what? What is there in this dust and rust of any significance? Two things. The first is the passing loop. This patch of desert is the only place within two hundred kilometres where trains may pass and gain access to the single mainline. Here crews exchange ancient brass tokens—part key, part shield—to unlock the line. Conversations too, news and gossip, sometimes family members, or body fluids, if they are the big slow ore-haulers whose timetables allow a little society. The second thing is that, if you look up the line, you will see it part company with itself. This is Borealis Junction: one line drives forcefully on into the snow country of the north pole, where the cold can glue an Engineer’s hand to the throttles as this heat will seal flesh to steel. Up and over the top of the world, and down into the old lands of Deuteronomy and Dioscu: green places replete with grazers and herd-beasts, where every village roof-tree is high and holy with prayer kites. The other line drifts to port until it curves out of sight among the thunderous chasms of Fosse mountains, spanned by treacherous trestle bridges and pour-stone viaducts, that disgorge nerve-wracked Engineers out on to the bleak mesa-lands of Isidy. For half a quartersphere the lines are drawn together by mutual magnetism until they meet once again at Schiaparelli Junction to run westward along the vast synclinorium of Great Oxus and the thousand towns of Grand Valley, where theWorldroof sparkles on the horizon like a reef of morning-lit cloud.
So this signal light is more than an arbitrary stop-go in the wilderness. It is the prefect of line safety, it is guardian of the line tokens, it is the gateway to new landscapes. And, no less than any of these, it is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer l2th’s Uncle.
It is time she made her entrance.
You become aware that the rail burning the sole of your desert boot is trembling. Bend down—don’t touch! Yes. Rail humming. Train coming. You squint under the shade of your hand down the long straight line. What is real and what is potential is still undecided in that haze. But the rails are singing now: a deep, tight, harmonious keening. A sharp dry clack. You have to look around at the nothingness several times before you can see the small but significant change. The points have switched on to the passing loop.
Peer again: shapes moving in the haze, flowing so you cannot be certain it is one thing or many. Silver in silver. Then the shadows flow, silver out of silver: a winged woman, wing-arms folded back, breasts out-thrust, hair streaming in the wind. In your amazement you almost do not notice that the
track is roaring. Red dust bounces up from between the sleepers. Now you realise your mistake. This is no angel. Its shadow flows out behind it into a shield of darkness: you are looking at the boiler-cap and figurehead of a great train. A very great train indeed: the faceless land has been playing tricks with your perspective. You had thought the winged woman pixie sized, maybe a medium-grade Amshastria, but close and manageable. No. This silver angel-woman is enormous, the curved prow of the boiler gargantuan. The train is kilometres away. But it is very very big. Airship big. City-block big. Ocean-liner big, if this world had oceans fit for liners. The buffer plates, held out like a prize-fighter’s weaving fists, are three metres across. The cowcatcher, baroquely ornamented with figures from the Ekaterina Angelography, could sweep entire phyla from its path. The eight bogies are each the height of a decent house: the spokes of the drive wheels are the crucified arms of windmills. The drive shafts, the thickness of a thick man’s body, pump with the regular, tireless ease of a Belladonna sweat-house laddie. The headlamp is a monstrous cyclops eye, furious with heat, all revealing. It is hooded now, but with the magic hour, it sends its sheer white shaft kilometres ahead of it, a vanguard of the divine. The steam that blasts from the sharply raked stack is so hot that it travels a third the length of the fusion boiler before it condenses into visibility. This train leaves a pure white contrail downtrack for ten kilometres.
Another glance at that smoke-stack. Down at the base, where it flares into the main caisson, is that a handrail? Are those staircases, is that a balcony? Those gleams of highlight, could they be windows? There, just above the halo of the Bethlehem Ares Railroads angel, is that an arc of glass, like the bridge
of a ship? And balancing precariously on the swept-back piston housings, spilling steps and ladders over the buffer cylinders, what else can those be but low buildings? A swathe of bungalows clings to the skirts of Bethlehem Ares Railroads Class 22 Heavy Fusion Hauler Catherine of Tharsis. And there, on that perilous railed-in viewpoint underneath the smoke-stack, is that a figure?
Nearer now. Yes, a sun-brown lank of a female dressed in the uniform orange track vest of her clan over a flirty floral-print frock. A tousle of black curls tosses around her face, combed back from great cheekbones by the speed of passage.
And now you notice how close the train is to you. Too much time spent staring at the girl on the high balcony. It’s on top of you. You should—you must—run. But you cannot. The whole world is quaking to the pound of the engines, and you are transfixed in its track like a hopper in headlights. A steel avalanche rears over you. Crushing death pants in your face. The black and silver angel looms over you like judgement, and turns away. Catherine of Tharsis swings on to the passing loop, tucking her three kilometre tail neatly behind her. Brakes shriek, steel and grit bite and grind. It takes a lot of space for the big transpolars to stop. This is by no means the largest. There are tripleheaders hauling ten kilometres out of Iron Mountain. The magic thousand trucks. Those mothers are visible from orbit, like steel rivers.
The caboose clears the points. It’s a frantic congeries of railroad utility and Cathrinist whimsy. No Step Here, with hand-painted round-eyed icons of the Seven Sanctas. Grit boxes and prayer flags, now windless and limp. The Bassareeni are a gaudy people. Socially below the salt, but the Engineers have
always got on well with them, outside the Forma. There was a mingling of genes some generations back. The Stuards have never forgiven, never forgotten, but the Stuards are a notoriously anal Domiety.
A trickle, a creep, a hiss of steam. Thirty-three thousand tons of Bethlehem Ares steel balances on two ten-centimetre ribbons of metal under the hot, high sun.
Clunk. The points have switched over again, back to the mainline. The signal light has gone from caution to green. New train coming. But that is not part of your story. Your story is ended here. Your part as observer of these events is complete. Your eyes have shown us what only the desert things and
God the Panarchic see, at this forsaken junction in the high polar desert. You are dissolved back into a greater story that begins here, the story of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th.
Naon Sextus Solstice-Rising Engineer 11th always experienced a little death when he took his hands off the drive lever. Post coital. He coyly shrugged the thought away—exaggeration—but that first time when his own father Bedzo 10th had taken his hand and laid it on the drive bar, when he lifted it off again, had there not been a tiny damp spot on the fly of his pants?
Twenty years rodding and railing had made him acute to every whisper and vibration of his machine. The fusion fires ebbing in the magnetic pinchtorus was a languid decay, a sorrowful limpening. Flaccid. He was never truly himself while the fusion engines slumbered. He grew distracted and irritable. All his family had learned this decades ago and were wise.
He called up a track report from North West Regional Track at Suvebray. The mottled quartersphere resolved in the projector focus, the mainlines a web of throbbing vessels like the arteries of a womb. The fast Northern Lights Express was still twenty minutes down despite its Engineers rattling every valve up into the ochre on the long Axidy incline. Derailment at Perdition Junction, down to a single track. Damn locals, jammed with commuters and roof-riding goondahs, stopping at every hole in the hedge.Woolamagong! Serendip! Acacia Heights! Atomic Avenue! Naon Sextus was not a man who bore delays with grace. Every lost second felt pared from the exposed end of his life, like hard salt
cheese. As a child he had read and memorised timetables. For fun. He snatched the monocular from its peg, peered impatiently down the branchline but even the vantage of the bridge of Catherine of Tharsis could not penetrate the haze.
Casting around for an object on which to flog his annoyance, he noticed through the grille of the catwalk overhead a pair of yellow desert-boot soles. He turned his lenses on them.
“Mother of plenty, has that child no shame?”
A woman’s voice answered from behind him: Child’a’grace, Mrs. Asiim Engineer 11th, floury to the elbows, folding samosas in the domestic galley.
Firmness was as much a part of Naon Sextus’s character as good timekeeping. Many a time the unexpected voice of his wife had almost tricked him into speaking but he had never lapsed, not once, in four years. He tightened his lips, gave the nasty cough that was the sign for his wife to look at him. Naon Sextus turned from the control board, enough to glimpse Child’a’grace, but not so much that she might think he was looking at her.
No underwear! his fingers said, shaking with indignation.
“It’s a fine day,” Child’a’grace commented, deftly sealing a pastry triangle and flipping it into hot fat.
The shame! Naon Engineer signed.
“Who’s to see?”
Every staring soul on the thirteen twenty-seven Northern Lights Express! For something was emerging from the liquid light dazzle. Due in three and a half minutes! As a coda, his thumbs added, What will they think?
“They will think,” said Child’a’grace breezily, here fishing samosa from the fry-bath with a chicken-wire scoop, “That there is a fine young woman of nearly nine with the body of an Avata and the impatience of a rat whom you and I both know, husband, should long since have been married.” She drained the golden oil back into the pan. “And if by some chance, the passing winds should blow
that skirt up—which they might, for if I remember, it is quite short and floaty—and they see that she wears not underpants, then the more fortune to them and I hope their sleeps are tormented by wants for many a night.”
Before leaving her family at an unnamed water stop under the volcanoes, Child’a’grace had been Susquavanna, a catering people who for two long centuries had hawked hot savouries up and down the platforms of the northwest quartersphere. Pastry was in their genes, like steam in the blood of the Engineers, but she resolutely refused to observe the proprieties of caste, namely the eternal distinction between track and platform. This was deeply grievous to Naon Sextus, a son of his father and his line before him. Truly, the dowry had cleared up the matter of the remortgage, but he frequently wished that Grandmother Taal had matched him with someone a little less platform. But after eleven years, the food was still exciting. The sex can go, the conversation will go, the respect may be trodden into a familiar track of predictability, but by the Mother of Mercies, cooking endures.
But the girl had no underwear, and one under-dignified marriage was enough. Women with no knickers ended married to Bassareenis and dropping their sprogs in the caboose. His fingers prepared to riposte this to Child’a’grace but the shapes were blown away by the sudden slam of the express train’s passing.
There was a moment that Sweetness Asiim Engineer treasured above all other distinct moments. She had travelled long enough around the globe to admit it as almost sexual, but it was entirely her own. It began with a brief flutter, an intake of breath, a stirring of hair and clothes: the pressure shift. At this point you obtained best effect by closing the eyes and listening to the swelling thunder of wheels. Hold the dread: fight the instinct to look at the source of that unholy noise. Then, the second pressure point:
there. Sweetness opened her eyes. The fast train reared like a cliff before her. The world was nothing but steel and steam and blasting, shattering sound. Sweetness unleashed the deep, dark fear: You’re on the wrong track, the points have failed, sixty thousand tons of train are about to meet head on at three hundred and fifty kilometres per hour, and you’re right between them!
It would be quick, and glorious.
The mountain aimed itself at her heart and, at the last instant, turned away.
The pressure wave punched her hard, blinded her with steam and dust. Then the slipstream yanked at her: You, come. Sweetness needed no invitation. She leaped after the blur of chrome and black. Along clattering catwalks. Down iron staircases. Across vertiginous gantries, over platforms, hurdling the sprawling legs of brother Sleevel, lolling idle with his best mate Rother’am watching the afternoon pelota on a handheld.
“What? Uh. Just my sister.”
Sweetness raced the faces behind the tinted window glass but the faces were always going to win. The wind that dragged her was failing. It dropped her in a little iron-framed oriole high on the side of the starboard tender coupling. She leaned out over the brass railing, raised her hand in salute to the glass observation car, the rattle in the express’s tail. On the open rear balcony was a fine city lady in a sheer lace dress. Wake turbulence tugged her parasol from her fingers. It soared up and away, a bamboo and waxed-paper flying saucer. The city lady looked up, vexed, and in that moment her eyes met those of the black-haired girl in the orange track vest in the wrought-iron carbuncle on the flank of the big hauler.
Lady and train were a thin black snake winding across the red desert. Carried high on the winds, the parasol floated into invisibility. The haze swallowed all. Gone again.
“You’re a fool to yourself,” the voice said after a decent interlude. The thunder of wheels had masked his approach, but Sweetness had deduced Romereaux’s presence from his smell. All the Deep-Fusion people had a distinctive musk, like electricity and cool evenings after hot days, or concrete after rain. Sweetness imagined it was what atoms smelled like.
He was leaning against the turret door in the easy-pleasey way men can when it’s not important for them to be looked at. Romereaux’s people shared hair colour and quality with the Engineers—and body fluids, certain generations ago—but he was slight and pale, with a narrow shadow of attempted
goatee. The sun did not get to the Deep-Effs in the heart of the big train.
“Two hundred years of Engineer tradition says I know what I’m talking about.”
He was a year and a half Sweetness’s senior and, bad genes or not, next corroboree he would marry a Traction daughter off the Class 88 Four Ways. She would miss him.
“There’s a first time for everything.”
He saw the way she looked down the long straight track and wanted to lie, to promise unpromisable things, but he had never been able to lie to Sweetness in all their years growing up together on Catherine of Tharsis.
“Sle will be Engineer 12th. You know that.”
She did, she knew it like she knew the sun would rise tomorrow, but she still growled, “All Sle’s interested in is pelota and grab ass. And he’s not even any good at them.”
Romereaux smiled palely. She went on.
“There are other branches of the Domiety have women drivers. The Slipher Engineers. The Great Western folk. Down in New Merionedd every other Engineer is a woman. And couldn’t you just pretend, eh? Couldn’t you just for once tell me, yeah, sure, Sweetness, you’ll drive, you’ll be up there
with your hand on the drive lever? Would that be so hard, for once?”
“Sweetness . . .”
He said, “Have you been to see your uncle yet?”
“Mother’a . . . I near forgot. How long’ve we got?”
“About five minutes.”
“I’ll go now, then. You coming?”
“If you don’t mind.”
Trainpeople, Sweetness thought as she waited for Ricardo Traction to crank down the access ladder. We can go any place we like in the whole wide world but only as long as we stay on the rails.
“Regards to your uncle!” Tante Miriamme Traction called from the tiny window of her laundry room as Sweetness hopped down on to the red sand. Stay on the rails. Bad luck will come in the night and climb up through your nose and through your ears if you wander off the safe track. Superstitions, litanies, observations. Casual coincidences that have become baked over years into causes and effects. Believed truths. Like daughters don’t drive. But she still glanced over her shoulder when she could no longer feel the psychic closeness of Catherine of Tharsis on the back of her neck. The big train stood like a black monolith fused out of rust sand.
Romereaux paid his respects first. A quick press of the palm to the sandscoured shaft of the signal light. Everyone—crew, that was, passengers never counted—on Catherine of Tharsis was related in some way, even the boisterous Bassareenis, but Romereaux’s connection with Uncle Neon was tenuous and he had never really believed that a soul could exist in a railroad signal. That might have been why he had never felt anything but Bethlehem Ares galvanised steel, Sweetness thought. He bowed and stood back.
Sweetness clapped her hands twice. The sound was small and flat in the huge and flat desert. She uncapped the flask she had collected from Madre Marya Stuard and poured a libation of cold tea. It frothed and stained the red sand like urine. Sweetness closed her eyes and boldly pressed her hand against the shaft. As ever, it began with sound-shadow, steel-slither, the hum-thrum of wind and wheels on rails, a memory of a life in rapid motion, twin ribbons of metal singing like the tines of a tuning fork. Her hearing opened like wings, was down at the bottom listening to the strum of the silicon and the songs the stones sing, then up through the wind-tumbled grains, listening to them building into harmonies of sand, a slow sea breaking grain by grain. Outward still, until she could hear everything contained within the girdling horizon. The rhythms and pulses of her own body joined with the chord of sand song. For a divine moment the great northern desert was a single quantum wave function, modelled in sand like a Shandastria scrying-garden. Sweetness stood at the locus of maximum probability.
She opened her eyes. As ever, she was somewhere else. In this place there were no rails and no train and where the desert met the far mountains the red bled up into the sky. Blood-red sky, a pink zenith. No clouds in that sky, neither hope nor memory of rain. The rocks around her feet were salted with
frost. The sand on which she stood seethed with static electricity. In all the world there were only two things, her and the upright of the signal light, rooted obstinately in the alien earth.
Sweetness had always understood three things about this place. First, that neither of them should really be here at all. Second, that it should be as instantly lethal to her as if the soil were acid. Third, that this was their private place, her uncle and her, and that she could never tell anyone about it. Not even her family. It had been bad enough with Little Pretty One. They had talked Flying Therapist. This . . .
When he spoke, he sounded less like the practical, piratical man she remembered, and more like she imagined God the Panarchic. In a voice that seemed to come from a great distance, he asked, “What year is it?”
“Same as last time.”
“When was last time?”
“Duoseptember. The autumn equinox. The Cadmium Valley contract?”
“Oh, yes.” Like a sandstorm subsiding. “What year is that, exactly?” She told him. He said, “I lose the track, here.”
As she knew that these conversations with her uncle took place outside normal space, Sweetness also understood that they occupied a special time, neither past nor present nor future, but other, real-time inverted. Dream time.
“So,” Uncle Neon said. “Sle . . .”
“Still thinks he’s going to be a big pelota star. ’Cept he’s got two right feet and a fat gut and his head is fried from too much television and wanking.”
“He hasn’t married that Cussite girl with the fifteen gold ear-rings, yet?”
“Has he . . .”
“Met her yet? Not that, either.”
“Ah. I see.” He did too, much and wide, but unfocused, like a distorting lens. Sweetness frequently tripped over Uncle Neon’s nostalgias for futures that might never happen. And sometimes the branching future he picked in this mother of marshalling yards was the mainline ahead.
“They want you wed,” he said.
“To a Stuard. A Ninth Avata Stuard, on the Llangonedd run.”
“Mother’a’grace . . .”
“Don’t worry yourself.”
“Don’t worry myself? You’ve just told me I’m going to blow my wild years brewing samovars of mint tea for Cathar pilgrims.”
Uncle Neon had an appropriately scary laugh. It felt like sand scouring the inside of your skull. Sweetness winced.
“Sweetness, your wild years are far from blown,” he said, and sang an old nursery rhyme about a sailor who sailed across the sky and brought back his love a silver fig and a diamond rattle. He did not sing well, even in death, but Sweetness was patient with relatives. When he had finished she left a polite pause before asking, “Is that it?”
“I’m going to marry a Stuard and my wild years are far from over?”
In the pause that followed, Sweetness imagined the three-bulbed signal light cocked to one side, quizzically.
“Yes. That’s it. Don’t worry, though. Trust me. Now, tell me, how is she?”
By “she,” Sweetness understood Catherine of Tharsis and that she would see no more of her future. She huffed through her nose in exasperation at the unruly oracle.
“The aft containment field still isn’t seating right.”
“Is it making a sound like this?” This being a twittering, hissing whistle.
“More like this.” Sweetness added a tweeting click, on a rising cadence.
Uncle Neon clicked his tongue.
“You want to get that seen to. What are those Deep-Fusion folk about? I don’t know, since I died, she’s gone to pieces. No one has any respect for good machinery any more. He certainly doesn’t. His head’s completely up his arse, and I don’t just mean trains. Look at that poor sow he married—your sainted mother, I mean.” Uncle Neon’s telepathic apology felt like two crossed fingers circling Sweetness’s frontal lobe in blessing. She loved the feeling. It made her purr. “He’s still not talking to her.”
“Not a whisper. He signs.”
Another neural tut.
“It should be you. I’ve always said that. You’d get that field generator set right toute suite.”
“I wouldn’t have let it get into that state in the first place,” Sweetness said proudly. Too many dead-end tracks toppling into glossy green craters were the monuments to sloppy tokamak maintenance. The Tracksters laid fresh rail around them but the blast craters stayed hot for lifetimes, glowing sickly in the high plains night. Thinking of them, Sweetness flared, “But I’m going to marry a poncing Stuard on the God-shuttle and make tea and almond slices, amn’t I?”
“You said you saw it.”
“I see a lot more than I say. That I can say.”
Says who? Sweetness wanted to say but the words were sucked off her lips by the sudden dust wind whipping up around her, a dust she knew was not dust, or rust, but moments. Granulated time. She was being drawn back. The journey home was always quicker and more precipitous than the way out: a swooping giddiness, a rustling blackness, a sense of wings wide enough to wrap the world, and then there; the big big desert and the hot hot sun.
Romereaux was squatting on his heels by the rail, scooping up palmfuls of dust and trickling them through his fingers. Idling time away.
“How do you do that?” he said.
“Do what?” The other place took a moment to blink away, like grit in the eye.
“Whatever it is you do. Wherever it is you go.”
“Go?” Suspicious: what had he seen? “I don’t go anywhere. I mean, you’re there, but you’re not there.”
“But where are you?”
“What’s this about?”
Romereaux shrugged, opened his hand, looked at the earth and small stones clutched there.
“I’m just interested in what you do, where you go.”
“Well don’t be.”
“You’re very defensive.”
“I’ve got to have something for myself.” On a train where five families live on top of each other in a tapestry of territories and societies. “Some place for me.”
“So you do go somewhere.”
“What’s this to you?”
“Nothing. They’ve whistled.”
That brought her up.
“What? How many times?”
“Mother’a . . .”
Three whistles and the train left. With or without you. Fare or family. We’ve got a railroad to run, don’t you know? Timetables to keep. As Sweetness sprinted for Catherine of Tharsis, steam plumed up from the calliope mounted where the main boiler joined the tender. The impudent notes of “Liberty Lillian’s Rag” swaggered across the desert as Madre Mercedes Deep-Fusion’s asbestos-gloved fingers hopped across the seething keys. All aboard that’s coming aboard! All a-ground that’s staying behind. Skirt hitched around her thighs, Sweetness pounded down the track. Romereaux passed her ffortlessly. Behind them, Uncle Neon closed his amber eye and opened his green eye. Catherine of Tharsis cleared her cylinders with a shout of steam. Cranks flailed, wheels spun. Like a crustal plate shifting, the behemoth began to move.
Sweetness saw Romereaux snatch at the bottom rung of the companionway as it retracted. Then it was past her head and moving in utterly the opposite direction. Sweetness spun on her heel and raced after the receding ladder. House-high wheels churned beside her head. Romereaux crouched on the lowest step, hand outstretched. Mother’a’grace, it was going to be close.
The reaching hand was pulling away. With the dregs of her strength, Sweetness leaped. Romereaux’s hand was an iron manacle around her wrist. Sweetness slammed into the relief valve on the luff housing. Winded, she swung from Romereaux’s grip. Drive shafts hammered beside her ear.
“I can’t . . .” Romereaux’s face read; youthful strength overstretched by sharp reality. Sweetness swung, tried to kick herself toward the diamond tread of the rung. Nailtips grazed steel. The sleeper-ends beneath her were a blur of concrete. Fall now, and it would be worse than miss the train. She
kicked again, reached.
Fingers locked around metal rung. Romereaux pulled her up until both hands had a firm grip. He gathered a fistful of track jacket and floral-print summer frock and hauled Sweetness on to the companionway. Metal scraped bare shin, she paddled with her feet. Boot treads found stair treads.
“Close one,” Tante Miriamme called, sheets a-folding as Romereaux and Sweetness scurried past her window. “And Sweetness, in the desert? A true lady never forgets her underwear.”
Two hundred kilometres up, the orbital mirror caught sunlight from beneath the edge of the world and winked it into Naon Engineer’s eye. Momentarily blinded, he dropped the thread of his argument to the floor of the Confab Chamber.
“Erm . . .”
“The marriage portion,” svelte, dangerous Marya Stuard hinted.
Blithe and holy, the five-kilometre disk of silverskin wheeled down the orbital marches after the setting sun.
“Oh yes. Of course. What had I suggested?”
“Five thousand dollars in the chest.”
A glance at Grandfather Bedzo, drooling in the Remote Steering Cubby under the copper curls of the cyberhat. Tanking up should be straightforward enough a process to entrust to the decrepit old Engineer, but Naon 11th did not like the way the old man’s wall eye was rolling.
“Plus . . .”
“Two percent on the next five years.”
A beat of fist on the live wood conference table. Grandfather Bedzo started in his decades-deep senescence. He remembered the hard edge of his wife’s hand.
“Never!” Grandmother Taal declared. She was a little, pickled kernel of a woman, packed with meat and life and potential. At forty-two she still shunted the weightiest of bargains when the locodores in their red flannel tailcoats came loping in their sedan chairs into the sidings to call the day’s contracts. Her eyes were sharp little black flies. “One percent, over three years.”
Naon Engineer 11th glanced again at his sire. He was banging his foot against a riveted bulkhead in time to the swash of water through the reservoir pipes. Naon prayed the Lords of the IronWay that Bedzo would resist an incontinence attack. It would make the marriage bargaining so very much harder.
“One and three quarter percent and four years.”
Engineer and Stuard matriarchs locked eyes over the bargaining table. On this oval of wood, reputedly an Original Branch from the Tree ofWorld’s Beginning, the Articles of Operation had been signed twelve generations and a billion kilometres back by Engineer and Stuard the First.
“Were he of your lineage, Tante Marya, I might concur,” Grandmother Taal said. “But this . . .”
“Narob,” piped Salam Serene Stuard, youngest of the Domiety, first time at the big table and blessedly ignorant of the social games the formidable old ladies loved to play. His great-aunt glared at him.
“. . . is a lad of prospects.” Meaning, and your granddaughter is just a daughter. A womb, a ladder to history. “He is Chef du Chemin. He has his own galley.”
“In stainless steel,” Youngest Salam said, with some envy. He had only just been promoted to Linen and Tray Service. Grandmother Taal scooped up his unwise attempt to recover coup like a hot nimki from a station tray-hawker.
“On the Ninth Avata!” she said.
“Yes!” Naon exclaimed, feeling as if he had missed a couple of turns in the game. “One and a quarter percent, and three and a half years!”
“Naon!” Mother-to-son voice. “You are without doubt the finest throttleman in this quartersphere, but that is exactly the reason men drive and women bargain. Now . . .” She turned to her adversary. “She is Engineer born in the bone. She has steam in her soul and oil in her heart and iron in her thighs and fusion fire in her eyes, she has left a million used-up kilometres behind her, she is true granddaughter of this grandmother and know this, she will carve up your Chef du Chemin Narob with his own fine knives, in his own stainless steel galley and serve him with a little salt and chilli to his clients and that is why she will go to Ninth Avata for nothing less than one and half percent for three years and twenty-four months. Stick. Stop . . .”
But before Grandmother Taal could call stay and seal the deal, Marya Stuard worked her thumbs behind the gold-embroidered lapels of her tunic and called out, “Yes, Engineer, but what is she doing now?”
It was an evil blow that ricocheted across the table from open mouth to raised eyebrow, deflected off Naon Engineer’s dismayed brow, through the porthole, two hundred kilometres up into the evening sky to bounce off the reflecting dish of the big vana, as it slid over the terminator into night, back
down to earth two and half kilometres north to the Inatra Fillage Number Six Water Storage Cistern in which Sweetness Engineer joyfully swam. She felt it as a prickle of gooseflesh on her bare back as she stroked toward the concrete lip where Psalli sat, toes teasing the water. Sweetness glanced up; the knuckled rim of the escarpment had risen above the sun. That would explain the sudden shiver. Magic hour. The triskelions of the wind-pumps were lazy silhouettes on the deep blue.
“You going to be much longer?” Psalli called as Sweetness tumbleturned into another length. She was a solid, sullen-faced creature, a true Traction. At eight-and-not-a-day more she was Sweetness’s closest female contemporary, thus friend, though Sweetness wondered would she have been had their lives been less mobile. She could be a whining cow.
“You go on back if you’re cold,” Sweetness said, elbows hooked over the further ledge of the tank.
“Nah,” Psalli grunted.
“Don’t let me stop you, now.”
The girl shrugged her meaty shoulders. Sweetness kicked off from the far end of the cistern. Two strokes brought her sliding in front of Psalli.
Psalli glanced beyond the stepped terraces of water tanks to the truck gardens.
“They won’t bother you,” Sweetness said.
“They keep looking and waving.”
“So? Okay. Then we’ll give them something to look and wave at.” A heave brought Sweetness out of the water in a cascade of fat drops. Balanced like a gymnast on the narrow lip, she drew herself up to her full one point seven five bare-ass metres. Honey-skin dewed with billion-year-old fossil water. She scraped her hair behind her ears, put her fingers in her mouth and whistled. It pierced the indigo cool of Inatra like a stiletto. All the dark doll figures that had been clinging to the tall foliage at the edge of the irrigation canals turned as one.
“Hey! Boys! See this?” Sweetness wiggled her hips. “Well, you can never, ever have this.” She turned a slow cartwheel on the edge of the pool. The watching boys of Inatra were each and every one struck through the eyes so that ever after they could not love right because tattooed on their retinas was a vision of unattainable youth and loss with arcs of old, cold water flicking from its heels. Sweetness bounced upright. “Just thought you should know, right?” The figures slunk away into the greenery.
Hands on hips, she surveyed her conquest. Inatra was a spring-line town, a place of wells and shafts and pumps, of water shivering silkily down mossy runnels from cistern to cistern, of gurgling irrigation canals and sagely nodding yawnagers, of aloof water-towers and lithe brown children who pranced in the rainbow spray from the leaking fill-hoses. Here the gradual tilt of the great Tanagyre plain cracked like a broken paschal biscuit into the kilometre uplift of the Praesoline Escarpment. Here the big fusion locos paused for a long drink of water before the toil up the ramps and switchovers of the Inatra Ascent. Here, while the trains drank, train people played in water.
“Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer, you have no shame,” Psalli said.
“Great, isn’t it?”
By now her piercing, two-finger whistle had penetrated Catherine of Tharsis’s Domiety Chamber and, though weak, it still had enough strength to climb into Marya Stuard’s ear. She smiled. Everyone around the table had as good a guess as her as to its source. She laid her hand palm upright on the polished wood.
“Three thousand, one point seven percent and three years thirty months. Stick stop stay.”
She held Grandmother Taal’s look. The old Engineer woman shrugged.
The formula was complete. No one living or undead knew its source, neither could they unsay anything it sealed.
“I’ll contact the Ninth Avata people and have the contract drawn up.”
Marya Stuard rose from the table with her delegation. As she swept out, Child’a’grace muttered, “Too cheap.”
Her husband roared.
“Tell that woman . . .” he commanded Grandmother Taal but she had departed in a rustle of many-layered skirts, so he signed, She is only a daughter! His fingers added, Half a daughter.
Child’a’grace rose in a blossom of sudden fury.
“Never . . .”
Sorry sorry my mistake, Naon Engineer signed. He had committed a cardinal sin. He knew that he had handled the negotiations badly. His hands might be on the throttles but he was afraid of Marya Stuard. Afeared, and indebted: no one in any of Catherine of Tharsis’s Domieties was let forget that she had single-handedly faced down the notorious Starke gang as they fleeced a carriage of Lewite Pelerines. Her defiance had cost her a needle in the hip that troubled her when it was political for it to do so, but her example had woken the demons in the milk-mannered pilgrims. As one they had risen, seized the dacoits and ejected them at the next mail drop. Marya Stuard herself had been so incensed at the needle in her side that she had laid out old, dreaded Selwyn Starke with a silver salver flung frisbee-style.
“Some day, and, please God, soon, that woman’s account will be overdrawn,” Naon Engineer mumbled as he went to clean Grandfather Bedzo’s tubes and change his bags.
It was full dark now over Inatra. Under the first glimmerings of the moonring, that tumble of orbital engineering that sustained the world’s fragile habitability, Sweetness walked home alone along the tracks. Psalli had made the most of the space caused by Sweetness’s display and slipped off to her cabin before the rude boys drummed up a scrap of courage between them. She walked between the sleeper-ends and the shanties. Sweetmeat and patty vendors roused themselves from their scavenged human-dung smudgefires, then settled back into repose at the sight of an Engineer orange track vest. Androgynously thin boygirls, ungendered by hunger, shook fistfuls of copper charm bangles at her. Good luck, good luck girlie, a prayer on every strand. Sweetness shook her head. The wire was filched from switchgear relays. Aside from the occasional electrocuted bangle-wallah, a prayer on
every strand often meant a derailed front end.
Catherine of Tharsis rose from the night, as monolithic as the scarp she was preparing to climb. Riding lights twinkled, windows beckoned. But a whisper turned Sweetness aside at the last booth before home.
“Sees all hears all knows all. Past present future. Uncurtain the windows of time, lady.”
The voice was a reptilian whisper, but strangely attractive for that; a reptile with a gorgeous jewelled skin, an ornate crest, a coiling blue tongue. An unsuspected seduceability in Sweetness responded. She heard herself say, “Oh, all right then. How much is it?”
“Very little,” lizard-tongue replied. The booth was a sagging leopard-spotted yurt. As she ducked inside, the door flaps brushed Sweetness’s nape. They felt like skin.
“It’s kind of little in here.”
Littler than the exterior hinted. She could hardly make out the lizard-lips man across the octagonal table. He seemed small and hairless, his skin oddly dark even among a dark-skinned people. She could have sworn it was green in the dull glow from everywhere and nowhere.
“Shouldn’t you be asking me to cross your palm with centavos?” Sweetness asked. The yurt smelled ripely of green and growing, mould and leaf, pistils and fresh-spaded soil.
“If you like,” the fortune-teller said.While she fiddled in her hip bag for silver, he placed a device like an overweight egg-timer on the table. Its upper hemisphere was filled with small white beans. Their progress to the lower hemisphere was prevented by a cheval de frise of spills inserted through a mesh.
The fortune-teller scooped the trickle of centavos up to his mouth and swallowed them.
“Should you . . . ?”
The huckster leaned toward her. He was green and the source of the smell of verdure. He flared his nostrils.
“You’ve been swimming.”
“My hair’s wet, o great detective.”
“You smell of water. Here.” Quick as a striking rat-snake, he whipped a spine out of the hour-glass. It had a blue tip. Burned on with a hot needle were the words “Fulfillingness First Finale” and “One for free.” The little green man studied the motto. “Worse places to start.” He laid the spill on the table. “Now, you play. Remove any stick you like, and the aim of the game is not to win, because you can’t win a game like this, but to delay the fall of the beans as long as possible. Then we shall begin our reading.”
“No problem.” Sweetness reached for a stick.
“One rule. Whatever you touch, you must draw.”
“I get ya.” She confidently drew the stick at which she had aimed her finger. The first five moves were simple, even mindless; then, as the beans rattled and sagged, it became a true game, with demands of thought and foresight. She sucked her lower lip in concentration and hovered between two spills that crossed deep in the heart of the bean heap.
“So, how does this work anyway?”
“You pull the sticks. Gravity supplies the rest.”
“I mean, how does it tell the future?”
“How should I know?” the green man said. “All I know is it does.”
Her fingers seesawed, decided, decided again, locked firmly around the spill that stuck out at thirty degrees. She could feel the beans grind over the wood as she withdrew the stick. A lurch. A solitary bean hit the bottom of the future-machine. She found she had been holding her breath, and released
it in a relieved sigh.
“Some beans will always fall,” the green man said, taking the stick. “Hm.
“Is that good or bad?”
“It is, that’s all.” He laid it next to the others in an orderly row.
“I’ve got an uncle can see the future,” Sweetness said matter-of-factly. She squatted low, hands on the table, eyes level with the web of spills.
“Indeed?” said the green man.
“Though he’d tell you it’s not so much seeing the future, it’s more like having a wider now.”
“An interesting perspective.”
“That’s what he says. But then, he is a signal light.”
“That would give . . . novel . . . insights.”
“He was working on the pylon when he got hit by lightning.” Sweetness drew a stick like a Belladonna rapieree drawing a swordstick. “There!”
“Bravo,” said the green man.
Three sticks later there was a click and a sag and all the beans hit the bottom of the jar like goondah-flung pebbles on a widow’s window.
“Oh,” said Sweetness. The green man was now crouching, studying the pattern of the remaining sticks. He turned the future-ometer over in his hands. Sweetness noticed that he was frowning. She thought of ploughing.
“Bone Sandals in parallel with Boy of Two Dusts, crossing Innocent Excesses obliquely. But Boy of Two Dusts overruns Scent of Lavender, then exits hole eight eight, upper right quadrant; the Deserted Quarter.”
The green man raised a finger to his lips. He held the hour-glass up to the light that came from everywhere.
“See? Golden Thumb-ring is quite, quite horizontal, and in an isolated quadrant; notice that the only stick that approaches it is Eternal Assistance.
Your family wants you wed.”
His eyes—which Sweetness noticed had yellow irises—challenged her to be amazed.
“That’s not hard. A trackgirl, my age? You’re going to have to do better than that.”
“I don’t see a marriage, though.”
“That’s more like it. You mean, ever?”
The green man held the future-ometer out to Sweetness.
“Not within the frame of the story.”
“What story would that be?”
“The one you’re in. The one we’re all in. This.” The green man’s hands cupped the wasp-waisted glass torso. “Stories are made up of lives but not all of life is a story. Only parts have the narrative construction, the dramatic energy, the confluence of incident, desire and coincidence that are the elements of story. Within here”—he again caressed the glass—“is the story of your life. Here and here”—he touched either green-tipped end of a scryingstick—“are where you fade out of the once-upon-a-time and into the happy-ever-after. The rods, of course, go on forever.” His fingers described extensions in the air. An instant of other-sight: Sweetness saw them stretching out beyond his reach, through him, through her, through the soft walls of the yurt and the softer walls of night and time. “You think that everything that has happened to you in your life thus far has been chance? To be so blessed! Everything you have been leads to this place, this story-jar, this confluence of forces. Of course, you can look at it the other way.” His chartreuse hands turned the oracle one hundred and eighty degrees. A different phalanx of quills menaced Sweetness. “If the universal laws are as reversible as the sages insist, then it is also true that the what-you-will-become influences your
decision of what-you-are-now.”
“And these beans, are they like God’s shit, going to fall on me if I do this or don’t do that?”
The green man pursed his lips.
“If you consider that, to me, shit is an excellent fertiliser, and to these people, how they warm their lives, maybe. Then again, you could consider them the weight of undecided events that must be shed for the bones of your story to emerge.”
Sweetness cocked her head and folded her arms and looked a challenge from under her fringe of dark curls.
“Do I get to drive a train or not?”
“You do a lot of driving.”
“Driver, or driven?”
The green man rotated a spill between thumb and forefinger.
“Grey Lady’s Visit, crossing Trumpet of Alves, acute. Both, my dear. Words of advice. Hold on tight to fast-moving objects. Don’t trust too much to appearances; then again, first impressions are lasting impressions. When climbing, look at the hands, not the feet. Be aware that the marvellous is always around you. Don’t discount family. Don’t drop litter. Always expect unexpected assistance. Take a toothbrush and at least one change of underwear. Small change is bulky and too easily rolled out of pockets. Keep notes in your sock. Angels exist, if you know how to use them. Read a little every
day. The desert teaches drought, the city bathing. Your body odour is usually worse than you think. Some day, soon, you will cost the world a moon. Your grandmother loves you very much. Easy on the throttle until the cylinders expand. The world is very much more than it seems. When you see green,
trust it, for it’s all one with me and I will be there in some form or another. Never pay good money to trackside hucksters.”
The green man pulled the remaining sticks and set them beside the others on the octagonal table. The future was spoken.
“That’s it?” Sweetness asked, in case it wasn’t.
“Yes, that’s it,” the green man said with the same considering look, as if Sweetness’s every syllable was loaded with wise ore.
“Keep your eyes open and bring a change of underwear? Anyone could tell you that. What happens to me, where do I go, what do I do, who do I meet?”
“You want me to give the story away?” the green man said.
“This is balls,” Sweetness Asiim Engineer declared. “I want my money back.”
“Have beans instead,” the green man said and threw a fistful of legumes at Sweetness’s face. The beans flew apart into dust. Sweetness reeled back from the blinding beige fog that, as it settled, became common Inatra road dust. The soft skin yurt and its resident were, of course, both gone.
In the dust at her feet Sweetness saw three gleams of silver. Her coins. A hissing: she looked up: wisps of steam were leaking from Catherine of Tharsis’s shaft couplings. The Ascent beckoned. A flicker in her peripheral vision distracted her; a wink of light, minute as a five centavo piece, floated over the
top of the escarpment. Quick as silver it slithered between the wind-pumps, leaped over the zigzags of the Ascent, glimmered across the tank terraces. Every moment it grew in size: over the trucks, gardens, the water-towers and hose gantries, aimed true and proper at Sweetness. Fear and wonder transfixed
her. The spotlight from heaven dashed across the sidings, over the cardboard roofs of the poor, swept over Sweetness. And stopped. She was embedded in light. The air about her seemed to sing. Dust rose from the ground. The night smelled electric. Sweetness held out her hand. The three centavos in her
palm shone like burning platinum. But she was not afraid. She shaded her eyes with her hand and squinted up the beam to the orbital mirror at its source. The light squeezed tears from her eyes.
“Thanks, but I got to go now!”
She stepped out of the enchanted circle. The spotlight followed her.
Sweetness giggled nervously.
Be aware that the marvellous is always around you.
She stowed the three centavos in her hip-bag and walked home shrouded in light.
Shortly after four a.m. Catherine of Tharsis completed its climb up the Inatra Ascent and dragged the last of its hundred ore-cars over the escarpment lip on to the down-grade into Leidenland. At twenty to five Sweetness Asiim Engineer 12th was woken in her narrow bed-box back of the aux-com by a burning tingle along her left flank, hip to floating rib. By the time she was fully awake, Little Pretty One was crouching in the mirror on the cabinette door. As ever, she was dressed in the clothes Sweetness had been wearing the previous day.
“They’ve done the dirt,” she said without preamble, as was her way.
“What time is it?” Sweetness asked.
“’Bout three hours from Juniper. Look, if you’re not interested . . .”
“You’ll tell me anyway.”
Eight and a half years teaches you the moods and toyings of your imaginary friend. But not as much as being joined flesh to flesh, bone to bone, organ to organ, hip to floating rib.
Twins were a blessing among trackpeople: two firm rails on which to run a common life. So when the mountainously pregnant Child’a’grace had felt something stir in her waters and Naon Engineer (then speaking words of love to her) had rushed full-throttle up to the floating Midwife at Dehydration, and the midwife had run her foetoscope over Child’a’grace’s belly and pronounced definitely, “twins,” there had been rejoicing. Even if they were girls. So no one had really listened when the midwife added, “They seem close. Very close.”
How close became apparent five months later, in the Obstetrarium of the Flying (as opposed to Floating) Midwife’s dirigible, docked like an egg in a cup in an old impact crater just south of the high, lonely Alt Colorado line.
“A girl!” No surprise. “And another girl!” So quickly? Naon Engineer had peered at the tangle of limbs and blood and tubes. Suddenly it all made visual sense, and he let out a cry of pure superstitious dread.
“Seen worse,” said the Flying Midwife, a great, ugly-lovely woman called Moon’o’May as she ran her scanner over the squawling, raisin-faced humans. “See?” Naon Engineer could make nothing of the false-colour images of bones and organs and pulsing things. “Shared kidney—could be a problem
with that, later. Same with the ovary. But no neural interconnection. The spinal columns are clear, and the hips are anatomically ideal.”
“So you can separate them,” Naon Engineer said, even as his wife was sweating and smiling and trying to make sense out of the unexpected complexity that had unfolded from her uterus.
“It should be straightforward.”
“Then do it.”
“I’ll come back in a year, when they’ve grown stronger and the organs have settled.”
“No, do it now.”
Afterward Naon Engineer would always justify it by arguing that you could not have twin-trunked creatures obstructing Catherine of Tharsis’s narrow corridors and gangways. If there were a pressure leak, or, please God, a plasma breach, the creature would not only endanger itself but the lives of every other family member. Child’a’grace, still vertiginous from the birthing drugs, had understood
that he feared others might suspect bad genes in the Engineer Domiety. Too close to the tokamaks. Uh huh. And there’s a shallow grave, just off the McAuleyburg branch. Oh yes. Well, of course there’s nothing left now, the condors get everything. But just you look at the collar bones, and count the vertebrae.
“So,” the Flying Midwife said as she printed out the consent forms and laid the little red squawling thing on the white table under the white lights, “who gets the kidney and who gets the ovary?”
“She gets the kidney.” Naon Engineer pointed. “And she gets the ovary.”
“Okie dokie,” the Flying Midwife said, and called up the surgeon she worked with in Belladonna. He was on a marriage-repair weekend on the canals of New Merionedd, so the locum slipped his hand into the waldoglove and put on the cyberhat. In his windowless office on the fifth underdeep of
Belladonna he waggled his fingers. In an Alt Colorado impact crater, scalpel blades danced over the infants. The robot arms wove, the fingers flashed and at the end of it the one with the kidney lived and the one with the ovary died and in truth there was a shallow grave, by the side of the branchline,
unmarked but much spattered by the soft, bloody faeces of condors.
Child’a’grace, half-joyful, half-despairing, hung a mobile of mirrored birds over the survivor’s cot and that night, Little Pretty One came into them and watched over her sibling, though the eyes of Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer 12th had yet to learn to focus.
That was the story as told by Little Pretty One.
“I just hope you like the smell of hot fat,” the twin ghost said in her bedroom mirror.
Sweetness surged out of her bunk with as great a surge as her tiny couchette would allow.
“Grandmother Taal . . .”
“She’s got powers but she’s not omnipotent. She got as good a deal as she could . . .”
The night, the dust, the gentle rock of the rails beneath her, the warm presence of constant velocity, the background bass hum of the tokamaks, the cool of the ancient waters of Inatra, the reek of dungfires, the verdant perfume of the green man’s booth; all drowned out by the rattle of pans and plates and
the blatting of orders down the gosport. Sold. To a Stuard.
“Who told you?”
Little Pretty One pouted, put out. She disliked having an oracular rival in the family.
“Did your uncle tell you his name?”
“Narob Chi-Ora of the Southern Circle Stuards.”
“Cute enough. Black hair. Nice ass. Nice eyes too. He’d be kind. He’s got ambitions. Catering director for the entire North West Quartersphere. He could get it too.”
After eight years, Sweetness knew that Little Pretty One’s coulds usually meant will. Somewhere in the Panarch’s ninety-seven nested heavens, she suspected her ex-Siamese twin had met others.
“When?” Heavy question.
“Next corroboree.” Heavier answer. Twice a long year, on the spring and autumn equinoxes, the Trainpeople gathered on the great sidings of Woolongong flats, ten trains to a track, five hundred tracks. Five thousand noble locomotives, tenders and cabooses decked with bunting and flower garlands and hard-won iron rosettes for speed and endurance and bravery and heavy hauling. Here the Domiety heads boogied and the daughters were traded away. Economies of money and honour were exchanged out on the shimmering flats and, often as not, were that same day lost over card and snooker tables. Commodius vicus of recirculation of the commodifiable. Sweetness had seen the young women in their mothers’ dresses, bags in hands, nuptial kerchiefs on their heads. Seen, pitied, resolved never to join.
The big ore-load was bound for the foundries of Steel River. Three days deadhead from there up to Shelby to pick up a forest fermenter—raw trees at Shelby, fifteen kinds of liquiplastic and hydrocarbon fuel by the time it decoupled at Wisdom. There, an immediate shunt on to a pilgrim charter to the Murmuring Mountain at Chernowa, then a fast run to Belladonna for a month heading up the pride of Bethlehem Ares Railroads itself, the Ares Express. And after that the sun would stand vertical over the equator and divide the world into equal day and night and she would get to live in a
strange man’s galley and her black curls would smell forever after of hot fat. So little time, so few kilometres.
“You can’t let this happen!”
In the mirror, Little Pretty One spread her hands in the way ghosts do when they tell the living, I’m a ghost, remember.
Sweetness did remember. Something else.
“The green man!”
For the first time Sweetness saw Little Pretty One taken aback.
“The green man. He said . . .”
“You met a green man? Where? I didn’t see that. This changes everything.”
He said, I don’t see a marriage yet, was what Sweetness would have said but for the smart rap on the cabin door, followed by the swift, fierce itch that was Little Pretty One exiting the mirror and entering the long scar up her side.
Brother Sle opened the porthole and bellowed.
The formula was ancient, irrevocable and universally respected. Not even the Domiety historians agreed who Uncle Billy had been, if he had been any more than legendary, but he had saved generations of Engineers from peril, crime, police, debt, rivals, badmaashes, wanderlust and misjudged relationships. He had warned of threats gross and subtle, shysters, dunners, weighbridgemen,
bindlestiffs and freeloaders.
“Whereaway?” Sweetness called.
“Railrat,” Sle answered.
A roofrider. A freeloader. A faredodger. Pausing only to scratch her haunted wound, Sweetness threw on shorts, shoes, shirt. Sle was waiting in the corridor with the flashlight and djubba-stick.
“You be careful with that,” he scolded as Sweetness reacquainted herself with the short, chubby railfolk’s weapon.
“What, like this, brother?” She aimed the blunt club-head at Sle. He danced back; the compressed gas charge could shoot out the djubba-stick with force enough to dislodge the most tenacious roof rider.
“Don’t waste the gas,” he said sourly. Sweetness gave his retreating back a thumb of disgrace as he exited the port sidewalk. She popped the overhead iris hatch with a gasp of steam and shinned up on to the roofwalk. Up on the roof had always been the place Sweetness had gone to think and feel and be alone, a savoury delicacy on crowded, bustling Catherine of Tharsis. Here, on the brilliant nights when the moonring was a diamond prizefighter’s belt, Child’a’grace had always known she could find her daughter out of all of a big train’s hundreds of hiding places. Sweetness unclasped her hair and shook it out in Catherine of Tharsis’s eternal slipstream. With the innate grace of the trainborn, she poised herself against the slow rock of the engine. She breathed in the night air. Steam wreathed around her. Several times since sprouting hair she could sit on, she had come up to take her clothes off and let the white vapour and the night caress her. At first she had felt perverse and sinful. Midnight
nudist and aspirant engine drier. Then one night, buttoning up her blouse, she had spied Nugent Traction not merely take his gear off, but enjoy a slow, nocturnal wank, launching his effort in an elegant arc over the side of the water tender.
Tonight, an Uncle Billy. Sweetness instinctively checked her tunnel-warning beacon, though there was no tunnel within two hundred kays, hitched the djubba-stick to her belt and set off down the gently swaying roofwalk toward the tender.
She froze on the top rung of the tender companionway. Her inquisitive torch beam swung hither and yon. Romereaux’s grin greeted her from the lee of the main water inflow.
“Don’t do that man, I could’ve djubba-ed you.”
“Sorry, did I spook you?”
“Nah. Course not.”
She saw Romereaux’s face change and knew what he was going to say. She did not want to hear it. He did anyway.
“About . . .”
“How come everyone hears about this before me?”
“I’m sorry . . .”
Well, Engineers can’t marry Deep-Fusion people anyway, so you’re scuppered there, she thought of saying but he really did not deserve words like that so she said, coolly, “Where’ve you checked?”
“Starboard side’s clear. Suleiman is still down port. Chagdi’s coming up from the caboose.”
“I’ll do the tops of the trucks.”
“Okay.” A pause. “Sweet . . .”
“Don’t talk. Okay?”
It was good and physical to leap over the dark chasms between the orecars and flash her torch down among the clanking couplings.
“Come out come out.”
She sent her beam dancing over the angled planes of the truck roof. Behind this one, three hundred more. More distant than she had imagined, another sway of light, Chagdi working his way up.
Father Naon had tried to impress the family horror of railrats on Sweetness but she had seen the indignity of old tramps impaled on signal stanchions and sad goondahs, shaken from the bogies, guillotined in half by the wheels, and the dreadful look in the eyes of the bums as they spat red dust
from their mouths and banged red dust from their coats and then saw five hundred kilometres of it on every side of them. Freeloading was stealing but every time she was sent up on the roof Sweetness regretted that she must be part of the punishment. Were tales of the terrible fates of roofriders not told
among the indigent orders that breed and were buried under the great termini? Or was whatever they were escaping worth any risk?
A noise. Not family this time. The torch beam dodged left. Movement down on the sloping flank of ore-car eleven. Behind the vent stack. Sweetness hurdled the gaps between trucks, light fixed on the hexagonal mound of the vents. Steel mesh clanged beneath her feet. Yes. Yes. There. Fingers. She
crouched by the handrail, sent her light this way, that. Her right hand unhooked the djubba-stick. Fingers, pale knuckled around the metal vent. Thin fingers, dust ingrained in the knuckles, black jam under the nails.
Sweetness considered the fingers for a long time. Then she laid the djubba-stick on the roofwalk and said, softly, “Hey. You’re taking a wild risk, you know.”
The fingers were silent.
“You get all kinds of stuff gassing up off the ore. A kind of relative of mine fell in once when they were unloading. Came out like a teacher’s handbag. True. If that thing valves, it’ll blow you clear off the car.”
The fingers twitched.
“You know, I wouldn’t pick that place at all. Hanging down the side? You want to get gravity working for you, not against you, see? I’d go right up the front, down on the cow-catcher. It’s right in front of everyone but it’s kind of like a blind spot, you can’t see it from the bridge. True. Really. But, well, you’re here, so what you need to do, when you fall off, is make sure you land right between the tracks. That way the train goes right over your head. Mind you, you have to get down kind of fast, you don’t want to get anything tangled up in the grit pipes. You could be dragged for like kilometres.”
The fingers twitched in her torch beam.
“So, how long’ve you been down there?”
Nothing. Then, a whisper almost lost in the wheel rumble, “Since Little Rapids.”
“Mother’a . . . Your fingers must be coming off.”
“Yes,” came the small reply that was full of knotted nerves and locked sinews and muscles numb to everything but dumb survival. Sweetness came to a decision.
“I’m going to send something down to you. Grab ahold of it.”
“No,” came the answer.
“You what? I’m trying to help you.”
Sweetness was sincerely perplexed at the rejection of her offer of rebellion.
“Trick. Try to knock me off.”
“Listen, if you’ve been hanging on there since Little Rapids, you don’t need me to knock you off. Sooner rather than later, my friend.”
The train lurched over points. Fingers groaned. Fingers slipped a fraction. Sweetness ducked under the handrail, anchored her feet over the lip of the roofwalk and stretched down over the sloping truck side. One-handed, she aimed the djubba-stick as close as she dared to the fingers.
“This is going to come fast, so don’t shy away or anything stupid like that.”
A second lurch threw her aim. The club-head shot within a whisker of the pale soft hand. The fingers almost flinched. Almost.
“Grab hold!” Sweetness shouted. “It’ll hold you.”
“Yeah,” came the voice as the fingers felt for the telescopic shaft of the stick. “But can you?”
“I can hold any damn thing,” Sweetness said, affronted. One hand, then the other grasped the stick. The sudden tug almost tore her loose.
“Hang on,” she gritted, to herself. She fumbled for the retract key. And twist. The djubba-stick kicked like Nugent Traction’s organ as first the hands, then the arms, then between them, a hunger-sunken face beneath the mat of black hair were hauled up over the edge of the car.
He’s kind of young, Sweetness Asiim Engineer thought between the rip in her shoulders and the tear in her calves. What, just gone eight?
They were almost face to face, lip to lip. Sweetness felt the last of her strength go.
“Grab the rail!” she hissed. He seized it just as the djubba-stick fell from her fingers and clattered down the side of the ore-car into the dark. Sweetness rolled on to her back. The railrat knelt over her, head cocked to one side like an inquisitive songbird.
“Why are you doing this? You could have knocked me clean off.”
“Have,” Sweetness panted. “Plenty. So”—a swallow—“what ya called?”
He was desperately thin. The fall would have snapped his little chicken bones. He had big brown suspicious eyes that mistrusted everything in the universe from under his urchin fringe. He was desperately cute. Worth saving just to look at.
“You saved me, you tell first.”
Sweetness sat up.
“My name,” she said, “is Sweetness Octave Glorious Honey-Bun Asiim Engineer. The twelfth.”
“You trainies have big names.”
“So, how big’s yours?”
“Pharaoh,” the boy said.
“Pharaoh something? Something Pharaoh?”
“It’s enough, where I come from.”
“And where would that be, little-name?”
“That’s . . .”
“I know how far Meridian is.”
Half a planet.
“I won the meat lotto.”
“What is this?”
A crossing bell clanged away into the past.
“Everyone puts up a steak. Then the Boss of the Roof draws the feathers.”
“Whoa whoa whoa. Everyone? Who is this?”
“The people. All of them. The underfolk.”
“Ah.” The deep dregs; the faces you glimpsed looking up at you from between the sleepers in Meridian Main; the hands that reached out from under the platform when you dropped a centavo and it rolled over the lip. Small loss to you, to the fingers down there in the access tunnels and bogieways, food and glam and power. “You lived there like for always?”
“This life, the one before it, probably the one after it too.”
“Don’t get cute, railrat.”
“We got names for you people, underneath. Anyway, you dropped your punch-stick over the side, remember?”
“Yeah, well I can still pick you up and throw you off.” They knelt, challenging each other under the circling moonring. “So, how old are you?”
“I’m near ten.”
“Had you for younger.”
“How much younger?”
“Younger. So, what steak?”
Kid Pharaoh finger-combed back his lank hair. No left ear, instead, a puckered grin of deaf scar.
“An old woman bought it. She had cancer of the lobe.”
“Don’t get a lot of that, cancer of the lobe.”
“Sometimes, when the wind’s right, I can hear what she’s hearing, in here.” He tapped the earless curve of his skull. “That’s how I know who got it, after.”
“What did you win for that?”
“The ticket out. Anywhere. And the golden purse. A thousand dollars.”
A tangential thought demanded Sweetness voice it before it faded.
“So, how many times did you go in for the, ah?”
“Meat lotto? Second time lucky.”
“The first time?”
44 Ares Express
“A big toe. Don’t balance too good.”
“Who got the toe?”
“Don’t know. Not much sense in a toe.”
“I suppose there’re one’s’ve been up for it a lot of times?”
“Well, there’s a kind of natural limit . . .”
“I suppose so.” Up ahead in the night, Naon Engineer whistled. Three short blasts, one long. Coming up on Juniper. Sweetness felt the great train shudder beneath her, brakes gently gripping.
“So, what happened? I mean, if you had a thousand dollars . . .”
“Suniyapa. Three big girls. Must’ve heard that they give out the Golden Purse with the lotto. They were looking for poor kids riding rich. They had suits. Looked like regular coh-mute-ers. Big damn blakey-toe boots, but.”
“What for? You were going to knock me off your train, so? Any road, they throw me off at High Plains and then I hitch a ride on some shit deadheader across Chryse because Mr. Engineer he’s expecting to ride the whole rig with me hanging off his lizard and when I don’t he dumps me out.
Walked three days to Little Rapids.”
“I’m an Engineer,” Sweetness said quietly.
“Yeah, and like I said, you were going to knock me clean off. Anyway, I wait there and one two three trains go by, and then you come along and you’re the biggest by a way and I reckon, bigger the train, better to hide, and then one of youse spies me and I have to hide down over the edge, so.”
Sweetness gave him her full regard a moment. She rocked back on her heels.
“So, where’s this all going to end?”
“Grand Valley, I’d hoped.” No hesitation. “I’m not comfortable ’cept there’s a roof on the sky.”
The brakes were squealing now, biting down hard on raw steel. Within their familiarity, Sweetness was able to make out another sound, a Bassareeni voice, calling over the car tops.
“Quick,” Sweetness ordered. “There.” She pushed Pharaoh toward the gap, mimed with her hands for him to crawl face flat and hushed.
“Down there?” he whispered, peering down the ladder into grinding darkness.
“Down there,” Sweetness hissed. “And be quiet about it.” Railrat Pharaoh slid over the top rung. His upturned face caught the moonslight.
“Hello? Who dat dere?” Chagdi Bassareeni called from too damn close.
“Listen up,” Sweetness hissed down into the dark abyss. “We’re pulling up for Juniper. Don’t wait for the train to stop, there’s always someone looking out when we pull up. Wait until we’re dead slow, dead dead slow, then do what I told you back there, drop down between the carriages on to the track. There’s plenty of room if you lie flat, on your back, not your face. Wait until you can’t see the taillights any more, then you’re safe. Juniper’s a merde-hole, but the Xipotle Slow Stopper’s through in a couple a days and they’ve no dignity. You can ride the roof for two centavos. When it gets to
Xipotle, it splits; front half goes on to become the Grand Trunk Rapido. Take you right to Grand Valley.”
She glanced over her shoulder. Fat-thighed Chagdi was standing at the far end of the truck, sending his torch beam swinging around like a jive-dancer.
“Got to go. Luck.”
“Thank you. I owe you.”
“You do, but I don’t mean to collect, so I’ll write it off.”
“Sweetness Octave, why did you do this?”
Heavy feet on steel roof.
“I don’t know, I haven’t time.”
“I want to know.”
“Okay, okay. I don’t like seeing people getting trapped in things they can’t get out of. Especially by other people.”
“That’s all you’re getting.”
The face was swallowed by the grating black. This is the last time I will ever see you, Pharaoh, Sweetness thought. Quick and desperate and unprepared. But all partings should be sudden. Sweetness stood up. Chagdi’s beam dazzled her.
“Watch it with that thing.”
“It is you.”
Light-blinded, then night-blinded. Phosphenes flocked like bats across Sweetness’s retinas.
“You find anything?”
A soft, gritty thud, then the brakes reached a crescendo. Can’t see a smile in the dark.
“Hey, what happened to your djubba-stick?”
“Bastard caught hold of it. Took it with him.”
“You djubba him?”
“Right off.” A whistle and a downward curve of the hand.
“And is he?”
“Couldn’t see. Don’t think so.”
Plump Chagdi’s face resolved out of the dazzle. He looked piqued. He had a reputation for capturing and tormenting caboose vermin and probably resented that his had not been the thumb on the djubba-stick trigger.
“Pity you lost the stick, but.”
“Yeah.” Sweetness sized up the dark gulf she must leap to get back home. “Pity.”
Forty-two long years on the iron road buys a woman a measure of dignity. When Grandmother Taal made one of her increasingly rare progresses down Catherine of Tharsis, she stopped, and the train moved for her.
“Honoured Grandmother,” Tante Miriamme cooed from her cubby by the crew companionway. Grandmother Taal grunted acknowledgement and shuffled down another painful step. God smite these shoes.
“Fine morning, Amma Taal,” called Finvar Traction, penduluming across the feed pipes and plasma buffers in his abseil harness. No one believed that all this swinging and dangling was necessary to his routine repairs but he clearly enjoyed it and he was one of the sights of the railroad.
“Umph.” Too damn hot in layered skirts and tight-laced bodice on a day like this. Electric blue sky. The hottest colour.
“Regards to thee and thine!” hailed cheery Silva Deep-Fusion, eternally white to the elbows in flour.
Grandmother Taal nodded and grabbed for the handrail as the train jolted over points. Son and heir he might be, but Naon was no part of the Engineer his father had been, in his day. But neither was he cyberhatted into the autonomic systems, the drooling autopilot on the long, boring straights. Grandmother Taal waited for the last creak of brake and huff of steam before stepping down to the ground. A tip of the finger to Prevell Watchman Junior in his shunting turret.
“Grandmo’r!” he yelled in warning. She was already pulling on her track vest. Not so old, nor yet so incontinent, as to forget the laws of the universe. Catherine of Tharsis dragged her long load past Grandmother Taal. She fished in her waist purse for her needle case. Her thick thumb opened the leather wallet, felt out the smooth shaft of the delicate obsidian needles, anticipating power and pain. Had they no respect for a woman in her forties, that they make her stand under hot sun and stitch coloured silk through the pallid skin of her forearms? But her magic had never been respected. It was too useful, despite its limitations. Her clients found creative ways of bringing their woes into its peculiar bailiwick. Had there been someone she could have thanked and cursed, she would have, copiously, but her power was not a gift. It had just happened, the day of her womaning. The best she could work it out was that the power had gone out of her into the brown smear in her pants, then
from there to every other brown thing in the world.
The ore-trucks clunked past. The tail of the beast appeared around the slow bend. Henden Stuard was waiting at the foot of the galley stairs, hat of office outheld in salutation. He whispered into the gosport. Three hundred cars forward, Naon Engineer applied the brakes. The companionway came to
a halt with such precision that Grandmother Taal need only step up.
“What is your need?” she asked.
“He is constipated,” suave Henden said.
Junior Stuard kitchen hands and vegetable peelers bowed out of Grandmother Taal’s way as she moved through the galley car to the Pursery. There Brellen Stuard greeted her gravely.
“He is constipated.”
Shafto Stuard sat enthroned among golden cushions in the observation box. Light stained by painted glass dappled his strained features.
“It is eight days now,” Brellen whispered.
“You have tried dried fruit?” Grandmother Taal said.
“And marmalade,” Shafto said, uncomfortably.
A slight lurch told Grandmother Taal Catherine of Tharsis was under way again. She watched the track unfold from under the bay of the observation box and wondered how it might flavour a family’s soul, to be always looking at where you have come from and never where you are going.
“I suggested a hemp bandage, soaked in oil of paraffin,” Brellen said.
“But he could not swallow more than a finger of it.”
“Nor I,” said Grandmother Taal.
“Please help me,” Shafto pleaded.
Grandmother Taal contemplated a moment. It was good for the mystique.
“It is doable.”
“Is there anything you require?” Brellen asked, head bowed. Mint tea would have been good but Grandmother Taal remembered that once Brellen’s Aunt Mae had offered her tea in a smeared glass. Her opinion of the Stuards as a Domiety had never recovered.
“Nothing, thank you.” She took out her needle case. “Children are advised not to watch.” She squinted in the stained-glass light to thread the right silk through the proper needle. The track outside, she noted, was now a blur of sleepers. She felt more secure in her power with fast steel beneath her. Immobility troubled Grandmother Taal. She uncapped her fountain pen and bared her forearm.
“Try to be concise, but poignant. It should express all your feeling.”
Shafto Stuard looked the old woman in the eyes, then took the pen and wrote STRAIN in bad lettering on the veined pale skin.
“Very well.” Grandmother Taal picked up the purple thread and commenced the humming. It had no significance and little tune—a medley of toe-tappers off that All-Swing Radio the young ones listened to—but it kept her voice busy while she embroidered the word strain on to her forearm.
It still hurt.
She tried something more closely related to the pain, reading the memories of past magics in the white scarifications of her arms. Those arcs and loops, buried under successive woundings like the surface of a cratered moon, had been that time she moved the big earth-making machine off the line when it
had upped and died inconveniently. Easier done, alive and dead. At least the teams slopping brown paint over its orange and blue mottled hide had been spared the moaning and hectoring about fine points of contractural detail endemic among earth-makers. That time the magic had been strong enough, and the paint sufficient to hold it, to flip the cussed thing half a kilometre into an old impact crater. Odd, that the power was not a scalar thing. It had been so much more difficult and painful to change Levant Traction’s brown eyes blue for one night of passion with a track surveyor for Lombarghini. Her wrist bore the memory of his few, sweaty hours; the white scar of the word pretty.
She glanced down. On the “A.” Blood welled from the stitches, soaked the silk, stiffened. Bad to put in, worse to take out. Brellen looked politely revolted.
“How are we?” Grandmother Taal asked her client.
“I can feel something,” Shafto said with a curious light in his eyes. “Moving.”
“Deep within?” Brellen asked. Shafto nodded. Grandmother Taal kept stitching.
“Oh,” cried Shafto.
“Ah,” murmured Grandmother Taal. Almost there. The downward slash of the “N,” then the blissful ascent to the finish. Done.
“Ohh,” moaned Shafto Stuard. Brellen mopped his brow with a paper coaster.
“Ah,” said Grandmother Taal, letting the needle fall and swing on the end of its silk. Blood paraded in thick drips down the thread.
“Oooh,” Shafto said, eyes opening in wonder. “Oohhh.”
“Ah,” said Grandmother Taal, feeling behind her for a chair.
Eeeeeee, said an entirely new voice. Eeee. Eeee. Eeeeeeee. For an instant, puzzlement on every face. Then realisation: Catherine of Tharsis herself was crying out, the top-C shriek Grandmother Taal had last heard the night Marya Stuard had driven off the Starke gang.
The emergency whistle.
All hands rushed for their duty stations, never to reach them. A tremendous wrench threw everyone from their places. Shafto was flung hard against the stained-glass bay and went down in a heap. Brellen floundered among golden cushions. Grandmother Taal found herself toppling eyes-first toward her neatly arranged needles. She grabbed at a cupboard handle and twisted herself aside. Cutlery and crockery sprung from racks, a full samovar of tea flung itself from the spirit-burner to spill boiling liquid across the floor. Chairs tumbled, tables capsized, antimacassars flew. Grandmother Taal was rolled toward the spreading stain of scalding tea. Somewhere she was conscious there was a sharp pain in her hip. She would bother with that later; if any of them survived this thing. She kicked her legs and swung herself away from the deadly tea on the hinged door.
What was happening? A wreck? A derailment? Yet more dacoits? God forfend, a head-on, a containment breach? No, not that, the failsafes would blow the tail of the train free and send the locomotive shrieking on ahead to its final thermonuclear immolation.
And it ended. Like that. With as little warning or manners as it had begun. Everyone lay where they had fallen, stunned motionless. The silence was eerily oppressive. Not even the familiar creaks and clicks and hisses of track life. Catherine of Tharsis stood on the mainline, inexplicably halted.
The dead stop jerked the bone slug out of Sweetness’s ear. Before it had even hit the decking, she was out of the cabinette door on to the sidewalk. The little gristly device muttered surds and improper fractions to whoever had ear to attend. Education abandoned, Sweetness swung around the stanchion on to the port observation deck. What she saw stopped her as surely in her tracks as it had stopped Catherine of Tharsis in hers.
They have a saying for it in the patois of Old Belladonna, whispered from the perfumed balconies, tier upon tier upon tier lining the great cavern walls, growled in the dripping, fetid runways under the deepest of underdeeps: gobemouche. Mouth catching flies. Flygobbed. Sweetness stared at the precise circle of alien landscape dropped foursquare across the Trans Oxiana mainline.
What she saw first was colour. Oranges, yellows, deep blues blobbed like a drip-painting on to the burned beige of the highlands. Once a Flying Optometrist had tested her for colour-blindness with patterned discs that reminded her of this; dots, swirls, crazily eddied colour. Try and make out a
pattern. This was what she saw next; shape. More difficult by far than an Optometrist’s numbers and letters; these shapes were completely other, so entangled she did not at first know what she was looking for. Then she caught edges, curves, lines. Those tall, ribbed things were three-sided derricks,
those low, curved things that caught the light as they flapped in the wind, some kind of kite-aerofoil. Here there seemed to be knots of thorny vine-pipe, there, that bright blur might be some kind of rotor. This was a whip-tipped aerial-thing, tall as a house, that was a translucent bladder that swelled and ebbed, swelled and ebbed like the throat pouches of painfully unpleasant frogs.
Shape gave substance. The little rigs that supported the whizzing rotors looked as if they were made from purple bone; the sheets of the kites had the gloss of pure nylon, the guys that tethered them grew gas bladders like seawrack. The orange-green ground cover had the nap of a handwoven carpet, the cups of the big flowerheads looked like nothing more than satellite dishes spun from styrene foam. Plastic, a polymer jungle, a Bakelite rain forest.
From substance to purpose. What was this? Did it have a name? A nature? Laws, ethics? Business? Predictabilities: was this all there was of it, would it expand, would more of it appear, like chicken pox? Would it disappear as abruptly as it, apparently, had arrived? Was it friendly to people and their
trains? Did big terrible things hunt in its heart? Was God to be found there, navel-deep in a pool of crystalline water? How had it come here? Dropped out of the sky? Just growed? Miraculously verbed into being by the angels of the Panarch? Domestic magic? Had some herder kid been mucking with the
Stones of Saying, despite all the Prebendaries’ sermons to the stern contrary?
What was it, where had it come from, how had it got here, how were they going to get rid of it?
All of which, clamorous in Sweetness Octave’s head expressed itself in one soft, awestruck, “Wow.”
Others had joined her on the balcony. Miriamme Traction had forsaken her scullery. Marya Stuard stood agape. Naon Sextus had even relinquished the drive rods to stand and stare. A whirr, Grandfather Bedzo had unhooked himself from the cyberhat and was haltingly negotiating the ramps and sharp corners in his power-chair. Onlookers moved aside to give him a place at the rail. His bleary eyes rolled over the circle of otherness that lay square across the track. His words spoke for everyone.
“What the sweet suffering frig is that?”
The young were organised into scouting teams while the Domiety elders gathered in confab. Things were hideously amiss forNorthWest Regional Track not to have issued a warning. Somehow—impossibly—it had slipped in under every single one of the thousands of watching eyes up in the moonring.
“Bugger hows,” Uncle Tahram Septus Engineer boomed over the great table. “Give me whens.” He was contracts clerk, but spoke for everyone’s fear of missed connections, rescheduled haulage deals, cancelled contracts and Wisdom’s bankers in their ground-scraping beige coats and little round purple data-specs. Customary inter-Domiety bickering was forgotten. Clan heads drew up schemes and hurried to their various stations to expedite it.
Equipped for the alien with track vests, notebooks, walkie-talkies and djubba-sticks, Sweetness and Romereaux eyed the intruder with mistrust.
“I don’t know,” Sweetness said. She stood between the rails, a few steps from where they disappeared into the other. “What if it smells bad, or something?”
Romereaux leaned forward, took a generous sniff.
“Smells okay to me. Sort of like when we haul a forest-fermenter.”
“It might be poisonous.”
“I don’t think so.”
Sweetness took a hesitant step toward the borderline. The rails were not smothered in other-growth. They stopped. Terminated, clean as a laser cut. Likewise, where the plastic factory-jungle abutted the everyday world the plant-machines were sliced though with surgical precision. A parasol-like leaf was sectioned along a chord, a windmill gantry was exposed down one side. Stems and vines were neatly truncated, oozing ichor the colour of longdead batteries.
“I mean,” Sweetness said, “if we go in there and . . .”
“One way to find out.” Romereaux unholstered his djubba-stick. He positioned himself en-garde to the line of division, shuffled an uncomfortable moment or two, aimed the weapon. “Right then.” He pressed the trigger. The club-head shot out, clacked off a gantry upright well beyond the line of
division. The shaft remained whole, unparted. He retracted the device.
But Sweetness still tippy-toed across the boundary, like an old seabather testing the water. Then something darted at her, feathery and diaphanous and whirring, and darted away as she swiped at it. She glimpsed helicopter rotors, a fragile crystalline body, great blinking eyes framed, incongruously, with long eyelashes. It was no larger than her hand. The autogyro-bug blinked at her, emitted a soft purr and released a stream of phosphorescent spores from its belly. The spores settled on Sweetness’s skin like thistledown. They sparkled in the sun. She heard faint far tintinnabulations, smelled summer
and palm wine and spent fireworks, felt delicious weals of cold stitch across her flesh.
“Oh,” she said. And, “Ah.”
The thing blinked again, dipped on its rotors and spun away. Without understanding the impulse, Sweetness followed. The will-o’-the-wisp led her into wonder. In groves of derrick trees five, six times her height she ducked under swooping sails. Gentle breezes scented with syrup and electricity
fanned her face. Through copses of translucent orange bottle-plants, wide bellied, tight lipped, corked with plugs of matted fibre. Within, coiling things somersaulted in thick liquid. Luminous midges swarmed in her face, shifting patterns of light and density. As she moved inward, Sweetness heard
the potplants uncork like deeply resonant belches. Looking back, she saw them ejaculate hundreds of long silver streamers. On, and in, over a carpet of glistening blue pebbles that, when she stepped on them, grew legs and fled from her. She padded through a parting sea of iridescent beetles. She stopped
to pick one up, yelped, dropped it. The thing had hit her with an electric shock. It lay on its back, thrashing its cilia legs until one by one they locked and froze.
Onward; parting webs of thick, pulsating vines to be sure she was on the track of the fluttering lure. Bulbs and nodules burst between her fingers, staining them with coloured juices that smelled of stale beer, cinnamon, fresh buttery plastic, window polish, Grandmother Taal’s herb tisanes. One smelled
so powerfully of ginger sorbet she remembered from a trip to Devenney on the Syrtic Sea she almost sucked her long fingers. Almost.
Onward: through curtains of transparent lace; along narrow twisting alleys confined between towering crimson tube walls, like the neatly coiled intestines of an eviscerated giant; crawling under umbrella-canopies of ground-kissing mushrooms; through flocks of creatures like tiny silver flies suspended from gossamer balloons that wheeled and darted with surprising agility from the touch of her shadow.
At some point Sweetness remembered that Romereaux was not with her, had never been with her. At another point, she realised she had been walking much much longer than she should have been able to. At yet another, she saw that the edge of the world was a good deal closer than she had expected.
Another still, and she discovered she had no idea where she was. Further yet, she realised she did not care.
Pushing through swags of knitted moss, she failed to see the glitter of water and almost fell headlong into the pool. Sweetness grabbed fistfuls of moss, they tore like widow’s curtains. She fell to her hands and knees in shallow, metallic-smelling water. Water. She remembered who what where she was. She looked around. The flying tantaliser was gone, of course. She looked up at the sky. It was a shade or two darker than the norm. Verging indigo. She thought of that other strange sky, in the place where Uncle Neon dwelled alone in his steel pole. Was this like that, another other? Was what had fallen on to the Trans Oxiana mainline a circular door, an infinite number of ways in, so that when you were on the other side, you found that it was bigger on the inside than the outside? The twenty-seven heavens of the Panarch were stacked like that, each inside the one below it, each larger than the level that contained it. She had walked a long way; the sun—if that was the sun she knew—was close to the edge of the world.
A panicky thought. Some doors open only one way. Once through this door, could she get back? Could she even get back to where she could get back from?
Something moved in the water. A face, pale, framed by writhing black snakes. St. Catherine preserve us, the Lamia of the Pool. The snakes were black curls. The face was her own. But it was not a reflection. Little Pretty One lay under the shallow water, rising slowly through the rippled surface. A hand thrust out of the water. Sweetness seized it, pulled her psychic twin out of the pond. Little Pretty One was dressed in the work shorts, tie-waist T and big boots Sweetness had worn the day she refused to djubba Kid Pharaoh off the side of the ore-car. Little Pretty One gobbed and hawked out a mouthful of water.
“What were you doing in there?” Sweetness asked.
“Drowning, tit-breath,” Little Pretty One spat. “Sweet Mother of sewage . . .”
“No, I mean, how did you get here?”
“You’re asking particularly inane questions today,” Little Pretty One said, wringing out the hems of her shorts. She and Sweetness stood facing each other ankle-deep in the strange water. “Same way I always get anywhere.”
“Where are we?”
Little Pretty One squatted, dripping, on a gnarled fist of translucent, spark-speckled polymer. Sweetness found a perch on a swag of liana.
“Now, what would have been a much better question is ‘when’ are we rather than ‘where’?”
“Well, when then?” For a psychic twin, Little Pretty One was damn irritating.
“That’s tricky.” Little Pretty One stretched her fingers out and examined them. “God! Bloody prunes!” She held up wrinkled pads for Sweetness’s perusal. “I mean, if you think of time as a railway line, you have a problem. There isn’t anywhere but forward or back. Think of it more like a shunting yard . . .”
“But one with many thousands of tracks . . . Done this one before.”
“Where? When? You didn’t tell me.”
“Oh. Him. And where is your uncle, exactly?” Little Pretty One looked theatrically around her. “So, did he tell you it’s a probability thing?”
“He didn’t tell me anything. I thought it up myself. When I was there.” Conversations concerning invisible relatives tended to the surreal of the metaphysical, Sweetness had found.
“Well, my little mathematician, if you can imagine that the tracks closest to the mainline are more likely than the ones on the outside. Like a train to get on to a track has to roll three dice. So, to get on to the outside tracks you need a three, or an eighteen; it’s going to be much easier to get on to the ones where you need a twelve. Except, the odds are way way longer than that. Like rolling a hundred Eagle-Eye-Jacques in a row. Maybe less likely, but the thing is, it can happen, and you’d be on that track way way
out there. It can happen first time, even. Space-like time. Time-like space, but that’s something else.”
Railway children grew up natural relativists, where time and distance were freely interchangeable as they moved at speed across whole landscapes.
“So, where does this when come from?” Sweetness asked. A cellophane rustle. Little Pretty One looked up. Her eyes opened. In a trice she dived back inside Sweetness. She left a damp stain on Sweetness’s shirt and track jeans.
Pink plastic fronds parted. Fingers pushed through. A face followed. Romereaux’s. Sweetness saw him, frond-freckled. Romereaux saw her, waterdappled. And it went crack between them, the thing that had been here every moment in every breath and word and look between them, that they had never dared talk about, that the ways of the Domieties and the customs of the trainfolk and the Forma had denied, but here, in a place outside the Forma, outside the world of laws and formas, they could play. Crack like Uncle Neon in the middle of routine signal maintenance, flashed into somewhere else.
Like that Sweetness found her fingers untying the draw strings of his pants. Loosening the elasticated waistband from the crinkled skin. Like that she found her track vest floating in the water, found fingers working up and under her T, found Romereaux’s attempted goatee prickling her chin. Then
tongue. Then tongue back and the pants dropped around his ankle like a vanquished battle flag and the discovery that he, too, flouted Domiety prescriptions on underwear.
“Ooh, you filthy bugger,” Sweetness giggled as it kicked hard in her hand like a pet lizard and he just smiled.
“In there.” He nodded at the pool.
“In the water?”
“So, you’ve always wanted to . . .”
“In water. Ah hah.”
“You are a filthy bugger.”
She unbuttoned her shirt. It fell in surrender like Romereaux’s many-pocketed pants. Sweetness took a step backward. Cool alien water sucked at her heels.
She turned to stone. Romereaux was paralysed. The windmills wound and the whirligigs whirled and fritillaries frilled while they stood, two statues, too stunned even to pull their clothes on.
“Hello? There’s someone there, isn’t there?”
The little pet house lizard had gone down, limp and sad.
“There is someone there. I’m sure of it. Hello?”
The trance was broken.
“Cock piss bugger bum balls!” Sweetness scooped up her shirt and fled into the pink frond forest while Romereaux struggled, one legged like a stoned stork, to pull on his sodden pants. They were both sliding into their track vests as the figures emerged from the finger-forest on the further shore
of the pool.
“Hi there!” Romereaux waved with one hand. The other scraped back his tousled hair.
“Hi yourselves!” called the leader of the other party, a cheery-faced, chubby man in his early tens. With him was a spookily thin girl who squatted on pinched thighs and looked resentful, and a dumb-looking seven-year-old boy whose face said I’m hugely confused here. Track vests and djubbasticks
marked them as track. “Where are you from?”
“Catherine of Tharsis,” Romereaux shouted.
“Back there,” Sweetness added.
“Ah!” cheery-face called. “Bishop of Alves!”
Sweetness knew the train, a good, tough little Class 14 freight hauler. Well-maintained and proud, but definitely second class.
“Where’s yours?” Sweetness asked.
“Back there.” The Bishoper pointed back through the finger-forest. “You walked long?”
“Seems like it. Couldn’t say.”
The Bishoper nodded.
“We must’ve been walking for a couple of hours. This place seems to get bigger the further in you go.”
“I think this is the middle, though,” Sweetness said.
“Thank God,” the chubby man called. “My name is Esquival Nonette D’Habitude Dharati Engineer 5th. Do you mind if we come round?”
“We’ll meet you halfway,” Romereaux said. But neither party took a single step, for with a rushing like the wings of all the angels in the Ekaterina Angelography beating at once, the sun was eclipsed.
Everyone looked up. An edge of something huge and dark, and curved almost as gently as the world, moved over the trainfolk. Projections, protuberances, masts, aerials, unobvious sticking-out bits: then they were in deep shadow. Not darkness: the belly of the great machine was starred with lights. A clutch of those lights unfolded, swept fingers of light across the canopy of the plastic jungle before capturing each of the trainfolk explorers in a personal spotlight.
Sweetness shaded her eyes with her fingers and peered up into the beam. As she had half expected, a voice spoke out of it. As she had also expected, it was big and booming.
“Caution humans,” it said, not in the air, but inside Sweetness’s skull. “This is ROTECH Real-systems Repair Monitor eleven thirty-eight. You are in peril. There has been a reality dysfunction in this sector. You are advised to leave forthwith. Further slippages may result in your being marooned when the breach is repaired. Please follow the moving lights. They will guide you to the exits.”
Sweetness did not listen beyond the fifth word from the sky. Danger, reality breaches, so? ROTECH was here, stooped down from heaven to touch the earth. The people who made the world had come.
Cover Illustration © Stephan Martiniere
Design by Jacqueline Nasso Cooke
Ian McDonald is the author of many science fiction novels, including Brasyl, River of Gods, Cyberabad Days, Desolation Road, King of Morning, Queen of Day, Out on Blue Six, Chaga, and Kirinya. He has won the Philip K. Dick Award, the BSFA Award, and a Hugo Award, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award and a Quill Book Award, and has several nominations for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. He lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Visit Ian McDonald online at ianmcdonald.livejournal.com.